My Review of #NEAfall12 (and archivist conferences in general)

I tend to be a harsh critic of the New England Archivist (NEA) meetings. This is primarily because I have never lived, worked, or studied in Boston or at Simmons College. To me, the meetings always have the air of a Simmons reunion, and that is not what I need from my regional conference. I usually attend because I feel that I should, not because I am actually excited about it. So to attend yesterday (schedule), and to be glad I did, was a welcome surprise.

The Conference and Twitter

At conferences I use Twitter to connect with other attendees, to take notes, and to share information with other archivists. The NEA sessions do not (at least this time) have individual session numbers. With three concurrent sessions, the result on Twitter can be confusing. This meeting’s theme was proactive archivists, and my contribution was to give each of the sessions an identifier. I saw that at least one other tweeter used the list, which is enough success for me.  An incredibly generous and trusting friend let me borrow her iPad,  significantly aiding my ability to live tweet. Reviewing my tweets this morning, I can see room for improvement. One of the best parts, however, was noticing the tweets that were re-tweeted or marked as favorites by non-archivists who follow me. A MIT alum, for example, re-tweeted one of my notes from the session on the Edgerton project.

My favorite aspect of the conference was the way in which the presenters approached their subjects with humor. It is difficult to convey this, but it was most notable in the session on “Things They Didn’t Teach me in Library School.” Janaya Kizzie, Archivist at RBS Citizens Financial Group (Citizens Bank), couldn’t show us any images, as that might have been in violation of federal law. Instead, she brought her literal archivist’s toolkit. A large messenger bag, it contained all the tools she routinely brought with her on site visits. Many of these tools, such as a headlamp, double as hurricane supplies, so she was all set for last week’s storm. Also among the items Janaya had with her was a copy of the movie National Treasure. She said she uses it to explain her job to people! Overall, the most important thing corporate life has taught Janaya is to have her elevator speech at the ready.

Following Janaya was Sam Smallidge, from the Converse archives. Yes, Converse as in Chucks. He provided a history of the archives, including an incident that sent shoes flying through a window and out into the flooded street below. Employees also seem to have stored items from the archives in their own desks, for safe keeping. Slowly, items such as those are being returned. Sam is also filling in holes in the collection by buying from eBay.

Also in this session, Marta Crilly, City of Boston Archives, described social media outreach. Having been involved with Twitter and Facebook at my previous job, I appreciated many of her comments, particularly that you never know what your audience is going to enjoy. For that reason, post a variety of items, even if you think they are boring. It turns out people in Boston enjoy images from the 1970s…because they remember whatever it was!

An unusual component to the program, yet highly worthwhile, was the informational session about NEA Roundtables. I would guess that the majority of the attendees were in the room, as nothing else was scheduled for that time. Paige Roberts, Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, Elizabeth Slomba, and Kari Smith each spoke about aspects of Roundtables and their benefit to NEA and SAA members. The NEA roundtables are being structured in the same way as SAA’s. Gregor gave an overview of how they work, and how they benefit both members and SAA leadership. In essence, roundtables will focus on issues that can not be discussed in depth at the biannual meetings. Elizabeth gave the example of informational sessions about rare books. Once established, the hope is that some of these smaller groups will be able to advise NEA leadership as necessary. Kari Smith has already taken the initiative to start a digital archivists roundtable. Though the guidelines say 30 signatures are required to form a group, don’t let that stop you. Be proactive! If there is interest, a roundtable can be formed.

Archives Conferences in General

Morning Ride in Chicago, August 2011

What I have learned over the past few years is that you have to make a conference – regional or national – work for you. It will surprise few readers that two things which have made conferences work for me over the past several years are bicycles and Twitter. As I prepared to travel to Chicago for the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Annual Meeting in 2011, I commented on Twitter that the cost of renting a bike in the city was going to be higher than I would have preferred. One tweet led to another, and the next thing I knew I was able to get up before sessions and pedal a bike, borrowed from a fellow archivist, along the Lake Michigan trail. Bicycling and meeting someone new, in one fell swoop. My helmet also became a conversation starter as I carried it around the NEA Spring 2012 meeting at Wesleyan University. With the conference less than 20 miles away, I had no excuse not to attend. Unwilling to give up a Saturday ride, I decided to combine the two. Yes, it meant I arrived late and missed a highly regarded plenary, but it was what I needed. Not only was the helmet a conversation starter then, but when I encountered an archivist yesterday who had ridden to Simmons, it was common ground for a chat between sessions. Of course, I neglected to introduce myself and have no idea what her name is, but it’s still progress.

I recognize that Twitter is not for everyone, but it has been an invaluable resource for me. One of the major reasons I decided to attend NEA yesterday was that two friends, who I originally met through Twitter, were members of the program committee. I wanted to support their efforts by attending. Once I arrived at Simmons, I took a cue from other groups and conferences (particularly the SNAP Roundtable at SAA) and used Twitter to find a lunch buddy. I introduced myself to my lunch buddy at the end of the first session. At the same time, I met the person she had been sitting with. One lunch buddy tweet and I met two new people. Now I will have even more people to look for at the next conference.

Hubway bikeshare on the Fenway, November 2012

No one conference can be everything for everyone. But as I have found, if you find a ways to personalize them for yourself, they will be much more enjoyable in the long run.